social sciences

Dissertation: academic staff struggle with information overload

Photo credit: Matthew Feeney/Unsplash
Photo credit: Matthew Feeney/Unsplash

Researchers have found that the way we value, collect, use and share information is closely connected to other processes inside the organisation. The aim of the dissertation was to explore the information culture of higher education institutions in Estonia and its effects on coping with information overload.

One of the key aspects of the modern world is how people and organisations cope with digital technology and the huge volume of information. Information is available to us in multiple formats, through a variety of channels and apps. The complexity of the situation is enhanced by its instability – the authors are not explicit, the format of the information keeps changing. This phenomenon, a characteristic of the digital age, has been labelled the overload of information and digital technology. This overload is often characterised by emotionally charged terms: information pollution, information fatigue and information anxiety. These terms have been used to describe situations where an individual realises the volume of available information and technology is endless yet also perceives their limited capability in using them. Although information overload is not a new phenomenon, it has become more significant during the fast-paced development of information and communication technology.

The results of the study show that based on information-related values, beliefs and norms, there are two distinct types of information culture in higher education institutions in Estonia: integrated and open. The integrated information culture emphasises the sharing of information. General cooperation, communication, participation and commitment inside the organisation was favoured. At the same time, there are clear regulations and processes in sharing, documenting and using the information. The integrated information culture is connected to increased job and leadership satisfaction. The open information culture is characterised by active information-sharing – several information channels and sources are used more often in order to make work-related decisions; cooperation with organisations outside higher education institutions is also valued more highly. In making work-related decisions, informal communication tended to be the norm. Representatives of the open information culture are more critical both of their own work and that of their leaders, and their willingness to leave their jobs is higher.

Liia Lauri, the author of the study. Photo credit: Tallinn University

“One possible explanation for the higher level of dissatisfaction might be that the wider the worldview of the academic staff, the more critical they are about themselves. The other possible explanation has to do with the management of the organisation. As the integrated information culture is more common in institutions of professional higher education, it is possible that the more homogeneous, formal and stable organisational structure offers its members a reliable and safe environment, facilitates the sharing of goals and sustains motivations. All of this might contribute to job and leadership satisfaction,” says doctoral candidate Liia Lauri.

Academic staff struggle with information overload. Two-thirds of the participants admitted that it is difficult to cope with work-related information overload. The study states that academic staff perceived information overload mainly as the overload of work tasks arising from their diverse roles that combine teaching, research, development and administrative tasks. This was caused by the multiple roles they have to fill – multitasking that involves teaching, doing research and managerial tasks. Information and communication technologies were not seen as possible solutions, rather the opposite. As for the reasons for the information overload, the participants did not see a problem with their information-related activities; more often, the reasons listed had to do with non-user-friendly systems that were not up to date.

The results of this study suggest that in the integrated information culture, improving information literacy was related to better coping with information overload, while in the open information culture, improving information literacy depended on personal initiative. The most important aspect in coping with information overload is that the organisation’s information management strategy also supports individual coping strategies. This is especially important in the open information culture where people are more likely to encounter information overload.

Further information:
Merli Vajakas
Tallinn University
Research Communication Senior Specialist

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